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OMG OIG: 2,000 Emergencies That Weren't There

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January 20, 2010

The Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released yet another damning report today (PDF) on the FBI’s use of National Security Letters (NSLs). Color us shocked.

NSLs allow the FBI to secretly demand sensitive customer information from telephone and internet communications companies, financial institutions and credit agencies without suspicion or prior judicial approval. The statute was broadly rewritten in the Patriot Act. And the kicker: Anyone who receives an NSL is “gagged,” so they can’t tell anyone they got one. This violation of the First Amendment enshrined into the Patriot Act has made NSLs the FBI’s go-to surveillance tool since 9/11.

The problem is, they’ve been abusing this tool. Repeatedly. We’ve testified about this abuse. We’ve sent letters to Congress. We’ve sued over NSLs repeatedly. And yesterday the Washington Post reported in a preview of the OIG report:

The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews.

It should surprise no one that the phone companies are forking over your info with as little as a “pretty please” from the FBI.

This is the third report in the last four years that details the bureau’s flagrant and institutionalized abuse of NSLs. The FBI assures us they have this under control. Though we’d love to take the agency at its word, I think we’ll go ahead and push for some outside oversight.

After a brief extension that passed last month, Congress is currently weighing how to deal with three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act. Sounds like a golden opportunity to revisit the NSL authority, right?

For years, Congress has stood by while OIG report after OIG report has been released. The bureau clearly cannot be trusted to police itself, so it’s time to stand up to the FBI’s pick-and-choose approach to the rules. Congress must fulfill its oversight role and ensure that this power is reined in. There are several bills in both the House and Senate that would reform the NSL statute. Tell your representative and senator to reform the Patriot Act.

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